A Virtual Retreat

Life in a time of plagues, floods and locusts isn’t easy, and the March What I’m Writing retreat was relegated to the subs bench of our writers’ kitchen tables. But by the magic of Zoom, we could still Dreamwrite, and so we did. I took them to the heel of post-Corona Italy, a beach just before sunset, and threw in some prompts all the way to the finished short story.  Here’s Jo Winwood’s. Prompts in bold.

Dreamwriting 28th March 2020

The heat prickled my scalp and the salty tears stung the scratches on my cheek. Behind me an abandoned building with cats lounging in the afternoon heat. The man with the gun stares at me, his muscles taut beneath his tattered shirt. I can’t make out his expression, sunlight glints off his sunglasses ad I have to look away.

The small boat rises and falls on the waves and the men struggle to keep their balance. I can hear their voices, deeply intoning the words I know by heart but I can’t hear them clearly. Under my breath I mutter the final lines of the prayer and cross myself.

Across the bay the blue flashing light and siren move towards the village. Dust flies from the wheels and the vehicle vanishes from view.

I turn, pulled round by a leather gloved hand and stare up into Daniele’s face.

‘We did all we could. The end was quick and painless.’

I wipe a tear from my face and shrug. What is there to say? So many taken, so many yet to find.

He passes a silver flask and I sip the warm brandy. Fighting back a cough I tip the flask back again and drink until my mouth is burned numb.

I try to stand, stumble into Daniele’s arms and fight him off. Rocking on ridiculous heels I totter cross the shingle, putting distance between myself and the beach. I reach the abandoned building, clattering up the steps, scattering cats before me.

Inside is cool and dark, far away from the oppressive heat of the beach. I wander aimlessly through the large room, stepping over chairs and tipped up tables. On the wall is a handwritten menu, a monument to the time when this was a beach café. I imagine the tables laden with coffee and cake, the chatter and laughter, then pull myself up. Nostalgia will be the ruin of us. Don’t look back.

A door creaks open and Daniele and the priest stand before me.

‘It is over, signora. She is gone.’

The priest smiles at me and holds his hands out to me. I kneel before him, cross myself and begin to pray for all the lost souls, all the lost loved ones.


And Chrissie Metcalfes

It’s quiet.  Far more quiet than it had been before…

No, I don’t want to think about it.  I don’t want it to break the serenity of the sea, the view, the tranquillity we seem to have found after the brutal insanity.

He’s staring, and I can feel his eyes boring into my skin before I acknowledge his existence. I offer a small wave and a smile at the stranger and he returns it before we both go back to staring out to the boat gently riding the waves.

It all seems so distant now, like the vague memory of some apocalyptic movie. Except that…

The noise, shrill and frightening, as it was supposed to be, a remnant of our scary past.  I don’t jump any more when it sounds. I just…

I exchange glances with the stranger again and he stands up. I notice his blue sorts at first – blue the same as the sea, a symbol of freedom – and he comes over to rest a hand gently on my shoulder.

Human touch. A connection, for so long forbidden but now so welcome. Even this calloused, rough paw against my skin feels… Something.

We have to feel something.

“We shouldn’t be out now,” he says, his voice deep but quiet and slightly gravelly as though he hasn’t spoken for some time.

Another connection as I catch his eyes, again blue like the sea.  I feel a familiar ripple, something I haven’t felt in a while.

“No,” I say and look away, unable to hold back the feeling, unable to stop my body trembling.  He’s still got his hand on my shoulder. His skin is still against my skin.

The things we took for granted before this started.

I rise to my feet and his hand drops away. He’s stood close. Too close.

Is it the heat or just this –whatever — that’s making my head spin right now?

“Are you OK?” He steps back as I feel myself wobble.

“Yes. Yes. I don’t have… It’s not… It’s the heat!” I defend myself knowing from the horror on his face that he thinks he’s just touched one of the last infected. He looks at his hand, the kindness gone from his eyes,

“Still, you should get inside.” He says, and walks with me towards the cafe.

He waits until I’ve creaked the door open and gone inside before he says

“Be well,” and nods, then lets out a deep, rough cough as he turns to walk away.

A House of Dreams

And as usual, we started each morning with a Dreamwriting session, my own version of free writing inspired by my suggestion of a location, and steered by whatever prompts I lob in as their stories come to life on the page. Jo and Antonia are old hands now, and a whole story can emerge in just 20 minutes, my prompts plucked from my blind vision of their unravelling narratives somehow colliding with their storyteller dreams. Here’s Antonia’s from Saturday morning. The location I gave them was a flooded field in a North of England winter. I’ve bolded my prompts.

Straws wash against the grass still peeking up from the water. It’s inching higher, land plants still hanging on in the hope that soon the water will recede. An empty rowing boat drifts past, no oars, sides banging up against the flotsam that’s pouring along the line of what used to be the river.

It’s all river now, though, river for miles and miles until it becomes sea.

A shaft of lightning on the horizon is followed by the ominous tones of thunder. The cloud hangs low and grey: this is just a lull in the rain and even as the thunder rumbles again a few drops break the surface of a small, still pool surrounded by hummocks of grass. A tiny fish darts in between the blades of grass, just as good as reeds for hiding from the heron flopping across the sky.

Cormorants are thriving too, plenty of half submerged trees to hang themselves on as they slowly dry: the sun hasn’t emerged from behind the clouds for months,

The people haven’t been here for months either. Everyone who could fled to higher ground, and those who couldn’t are long dead, their bones now part of the silt at the bottom of the endless river.

A gate swings thud, thud, thud against a bank, but its post wobbles with the force of the waves and still it will form just another part of the stream of wood and debris floating out to sea.

The water level isn’t rising as fast as it did at first, but there isn’t enough land left to support the survivors, and every so often a fresh corpse floats past.

The Magic of Dreamwriting

I don’t know what it is about this place. Maybe it’s the light, maybe it’s the space, or maybe it’s just about being in the middle of nowhere that makes the magic happen.

Writers come here to close the door on the rest of their world, to leave the kids for a while, to leave someone else to walk the dog and clean the house for a change, to give themselves the time to write thousands and thousands of words. It’s almost always women who come here to write.

I love to feed them, trying out recipes, usually for the first time, from the many cook books I’m sent as a food journalist.  And as I potter in the kitchen in the heart of the house, one of the writers will leave her room for a while to pull up a stool and chat as I chop. It’s always about the writing; we pull faith apart as I glaze the beetroot with tamarind (Mildred’s Vegan), sibling rivalry as the dhal makhani slowly thickens (Midlife Kitchen), and debate dystopia v utopia over a black bean and orange tagine (ditto). 

But as the house fills with the smell of spiced orange and stories of psycho killer spy mothers and bullying bloggers, it’s the Dreamwriting that thrills me most. Before the writers retreat to their rooms, we start the day with a guided Dreamwriting session. Poised with pens on paper, fingers on laptops, they wait for my prompts to lure the fragments of ideas from who knows where. As the stories appear on the page, I lob in a screech of an owl, an unpleasant smell or a silhouette against the moon every few minutes which they weave into their tales or ignore completely. After twenty minutes, I tell them to stop. In turn, they share what happened on their page or screen, and some, like Jo Winwood, will read what they’ve written.

This is Jo’s unedited Dreamwriting as it appeared on her screen in just 20 minutes on Saturday morning.  I’ve bolded the prompts.

Diana stood perfectly still, her face tilted towards the sky. Moonlight heightened the shape of the trees, dark skeletal fingers reaching towards the heavens.

The silhouette of her sister came into view as Georgia strode between the trees. Her figure seemed diminished, shortened in the night so she was not the strong woman Diana knew but a small, gnomish figure.

From a distant stand of trees, the sound of an owl calling, answered shortly afterwards by another in the distance. Diana remembered myths about owls leading brave warriors on quests and wondered what the owls were talking about.

She watched as Georgia headed towards the shed at the bottom of the wood. This was where their father had spent his weekends, tinkering around with bits and pieces, rummaging through tins of nails and boxes of screws. Diana had loved joining him, arranging his tools and watching him work. He was not the most accomplished handyman but he took great care of what he did, frowning with concentration as he glued, screwed and shaped.

Diana walked towards the shed, taking care where she placed her feet. There were roots waiting to trip up the unwary and she didn’t want to fall. Something soft and giving popped under her foot and the smell of decay rose to assault her nostrils. she winced and hurried between the trees towards the shed. there was no sign of Georgia but a strange car was parked in front of the shed.

Diana approached cautiously, peering in through the windows. The car was empty. It was old. Like the cars her parents had driven when they were children. There was rust at the wheel arches and a fine, silvery dust coated the faded paintwork. On the back seat were two cushions and a crocheted blanket exactly like the one her mother had taken into hospital on her last visit.

Diana reached out for the door handle and pulled. The door swung open with a squeak and the aroma of cigarettes and leather sent her reeling backwards.

The first flicker of daylight hit the number plate of the car and tears sprang into Diana’s eyes. This was the car her father had taught her and Georgia to drive in, the first car he had ever owned outright and it shouldn’t be here in front of the shed.

Everyone has a different way of writing; some people find Dreamwriting inspires new ideas in notes or bullets, while others find it useful to explore back stories to the characters they’re working on. Others find it gives words to pain they’ve been unable to express.

It’s dark and quiet again now in this house in the woods, and the Dreamwriters are nearly home. They’ll write in their own rooms and share their words, blocks and epiphanies in their online groups until they come back and we start the day again with their dreams. I can’t wait.

Burning the bad stuff; the writers pen the poisonous thoughts or self limiting beliefs and burn them, usually at the fire pit, but in this cold weather, the log burner will have to do.

What A Woman Wants

firepitWay back when the house was just a shell, I used to dream of a weekend like this last one. I’d fill it with amazing women, fabulous food and we’d talk and read and hang out, helping each other with the cooking and the washing up. We’d walk through the woods and sit around a fire-pit at sunset, teasing each other about the Bridget Jones moments of our lives and reminding each other of the times when we won  – against all the odds. It would be the ultimate in a girls’ weekend away.

So when my pal, Tanja Gangar sent me a Facebook message from her Indian ashram where she was studying to be a yoga teacher to ask if we could have a women-only yoga retreat when she got back, I grabbed the diary. ‘Let’s do Hallowe’en’, I said, imagining a covern of witchy magic where she could show us what she’d learned on her mid life gap year.

And so we did.

But what happened was much more than my original dream. Tan had gathered a group of women  of ‘a certain age’ who shared that thing that belongs to women who have lived a while. A certain age; it’s an odd phrase. We’re certain about so much at 40 plus, but the phrase suggests that we’re hesitant about the time it took to get here. We love those Bridget Jones stories, but worry about the lines that were carved when they weren’t quite so funny. We define ourselves by other people – kids, partners, friends, parents – whether we have them or not, and, faced with a world without them, we freeze in fear of the long road ahead. How to love again when your heart is broken, how to live again when your home is empty, how to let go of illnesses you’ve conquered but hover like the shadow they once were.

I don’t know how Tan’s own brand of GangaMa yoga managed to tease all that out of our group – and more. As we stretched and found ourselves in positions we didn’t think were possible, maybe we opened up those magic chakras where all the juicy stuff lives. Maybe the auming and humming and twisting and folding made us feel all the bits of us that we’d forgotten to feel, and the Universe approved. As Tan stood in tree pose on Sunday afternoon, she remembered that it was Divali, and with that thought, the light poured into A Sussex House, bathing us in sunshine. We threw open the doors, letting the outside in, and breathed in the first day of the rest of our lives.

GangaMa yoga is a yoga practice for women of a certain age. We’re certain about some things and we know nothing about the rest. And that’s ok. And you read it here first – GangaMa with Tanja Gangar will grow. It will find women who want to retreat to the middle of nowhere and stretch and fold and twist until they cry or laugh or simply sigh. They’ll cook together and share their Bridget Jones stories as they wash up afterwards. They’ll forgive their kids, partners, friends, parents and throw their affirmations into a fire under a sunset sky. They’ll walk through the woods and see the magic of a herd of deer cross their path. It’ll be the ultimate girls’ weekend away.

Next GangaMaYoga  Winter Weekend Yoga Retreats with Tan Gangar

Cleanse and Renew: Friday Jan 6th- Sun 8th 2017

Love and Acceptance: February 10th – 12th 2017

For beginners to intermediate levels  For more info, click here 





Tan monkey

Photo of Tan and her friend by Laurie Bryan Larson


Ah for an Indian summer. Just when you thought it was all over (the rain, the damp expectation blues of a British summer), Tan – by name and nature – one of my most inspiring chums emails from India with news of her yoga retreat on the last weekend in Oct.  Tan took a year out of life in the fast lane living in Brighton and working at The National Portrait Gallery and went to see what she could find of her self in ashram life in India. Here she tells something of the life changing experience that India and yoga has given her this last year.  For more info on how to sign up, pop over to the Retreats tab and scroll down for details of her amazing retreat at A Sussex House.

Having completed nine months of my Mid-Life Gap Year, I’m currently teaching yoga classes at the famous Parmarth Nikiten Ashram, one of the largest yoga centers in India. The Ashram offers a wide variety of yoga courses for thousands of international visitors a year and two regular sessions daily for the many native and International yoga enthusiasts that visit the Campus all year round; so my classes are always filled with an eclectic mix of students from every continent, who seem to like my unique mixed-up style, a collection influences gathered on this crazy journey I’ve been on…I’ve  even built up a bit of a fan-base too. 
With only a few weeks left, I’ve been trying to gather as much learning as I can and  just finished one of the traditional Hatha Yoga courses here with the incomparable Hatha Guru Induji, who teaches yoga in the strict, classical style, through asana and pranayama practice, chanting and meditation. The course promotes the acknowledgement of  yoga  as the union of body mind and spirit and the expectation that  students attending respect this by agreeing to wear only white, eat only Sattvic (calm) foods and do their share of Karma Yoga (cleaning duties). 

Also my amazing yoga master, Parveen Nair whom I did my teacher training with in Goa, has been offering extra intensive classes between his recent teacher training courses here in Rishikesh, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning from him again; a yoga master and former disciple of BK Iyengar himself; He’s a very tough instructor who pushes you to your limits and really knows how to take you out of your comfort zone.  

So, returning home in month I’ll be ready to impart almost a year’s worth of collective knowledge and wisdom to my fellow UK yogis and hope to raise some of the amazing inspiration and enlightenment that I’ve gathered on my huge yoga adventure here.


A guest blog from Rattle Tales’ Erinna Mettler


Erinna Mettler

Rattle Tales (Brighton’s premier spoken word group) recently rolled up at A Sussex House for a weekend writing retreat. We’d done day workshops before but this was our first overnighter. Six writers joined tutors (and Rattle Tales Directors) Alice Cuninghame and Erinna Mettler for a weekend of writing times, creative exercises and the chance to practice their read aloud skills.

Rattle Tales was established five years ago by graduates from The University of Sussex MA in Creative Writing, who wanted to bring their writing to a wider audience. Since that first show Rattle Tales has grown and grown, staging sell-out events regularly at The Brunswick Pub in Hove and at Brighton Fringe, The Green Man Festival and even a show in Le Crotoy, France. Three years ago they established the (now international) Brighton Prize, the city’s only short story competition which was judged last year by Peter James.

Retreaters arrived at the house, deep in the Sussex countryside, early on Friday evening. The house is a beautiful modern eco design surrounded by bluebell woods and overlooks a duck pond and a field inhabited by rabbits and hares. A herd of deer lives nearby and wanders through the wood in the early morning mists. Everyone settled into their spacious bedrooms and then we had dinner cooked by our host Gilly Smith and sat around the enormous table to talk about our writing and get to know each other a bit better.

The next morning, after breakfast, our day retreaters arrived and Alice and Erinna gave a talk on writing short stories and performing to an audience. The retreat was designed to prepare writers for writing for one of our shows and for entering short story competitions. After this there was plenty of time to write and each client had a mentoring session with one or both of our tutors to discuss a previously read piece.  It was cold but sunny and the birds sang in the trees. Our retreaters were free to walk around the grounds but most knuckled down and spent the time writing for the evening’s planned performance. Gilly provided delicious meals, poached salmon and salads, heavenly brownies and a baked chicken with rice. At the end of the day there was Prosecco and everyone read some of their writing around the wood burner. If it had been warmer we would have surely relocated to the bluebell wood for a campfire!

We were struck by how accomplished the stories were and how diverse, we had poetry and memoir and nature writing and fully formed short stories. Each was a delight and it really felt like a performance.

The next day brought creative writing exercises, further mentoring and more free writing time.  Everything stopped for a long Sunday dinner. Unfortunately it was then time to say our goodbyes. The weekend had passed in a flash but we are looking forward to the next one.

One of our retreaters, Elizabeth Hughes, submitted a story to Rattle Tales for our Brighton Fringe Show. We are delighted to say it got through the selection panel and she will be reading it at the show on May 26th. Tickets are available from Brighton Fringe box office. For further information on our shows, workshops and retreats please sign up to our mailing list. www.rattletales.org


Time, space, support & inspiration to get creative.

The house has the Wow factor! Warm & comfortable.

The house was absolutely lovely. The food was amazing.

The mentoring sessions were brilliant! It’s great to have such detailed feedback.

The accommodation was equal to any of the posh hotels I’ve stayed in. I would describe it as first class.

I liked the free-flowing exchange of ideas and writing that was made possible by the quickly established feeling of trust between diverse people.

The whole experience exceeded my expectations. Rest assured I will extol Rattle Tales’ virtues to as many people as possible.

Rattle Tales: The Retreat April 22-24


Friday April 22nd – Sunday April 24th 

Rattle Tales takes up residence in A Sussex House for a short fiction retreat. Tutors Erinna Mettler and Alice Cuninghame, will introduce you to Brighton spoken word group Rattle Tales, the dos and don’ts of writing for an audience and how to survive reading your work in public. Both directors of the newly expanded Brighton Prize for short fiction they will also look at how to make your story stand out from the crowd in competitions. There will be writing exercises, one to ones, the opportunity to share your work and plenty of time to write.

Your Hosts


Erinna Mettler

Erinna Mettler‘s first novel, the Brighton-set Starlings, was published in 2011 by Revenge Ink and was described by one reviewer thus:

‘We read this and feel as though we know Brighton intimately, just as we get to know Baltimore inside and out in The Wire.’

Erinna is a founder and co-director of the spoken word collective Rattle Tales and the newly established Brighton Prize, the city’s only short story competition. She is also an experienced tutor and mentor with an MA in Creative Writing (dist) from The University of Sussex.

Erinna’s short stories have been shortlisted for The Bristol Prize and The Writers & Artists Yearbook Arvon Award. Her stories and poems have been published internationally in journals such as Riptide, Swamp and The Manchester Review. She has a special interest in writing for performance and her career highlight so far was having a story read by a Game of Thrones actor at Latitude Festival.

‘Mettler has an astonishing ability to connect reader with character, using her mastery of language and storytelling to compel the reader to keep turning the page.’ The Brighton Argus

‘Epic, unchanging, the human condition is laid bare throughout these stories. Artfully, Mettler picks it apart, examines it, and then builds it back together again from a ruin, into something stronger, more coherent.’ The Short Review

Twitter @ErinnaMettler   www.erinnamettler.com

alice cuninghame

Alice Cuninghame

Alice Cuninghame is a writing coach, copywriter and fiction writer. She is a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing and Authorship at Sussex University.

Alice is a co-founder and director of Rattle Tales, an interactive storytelling event, and is a regular performer at it. As part of Rattle Tales, she co-founded the Brighton Prize, the city’s only major literary prize.

Her short stories have been published in a number of places, including Aesthetica and the Stories for Homes anthology.

As a coach, Alice works with fiction and non-fiction writers from all over the world, helping them break through creative blocks, hone their skills and gain lasting satisfaction from their writing. She also runs writing and yoga retreats in Brighton.

@alicecuninghame      www.alicecuninghame.co.uk.




Arrival from 5pm

7pm welcome

8pm dinner


8am breakfast

10am talk on writing for performance and questions

11am-1pm: writing time/ 121s

1pm lunch

1803pm – 6pm: writing time/121s

6.30-8pm: performance

rattle anth1

8pm dinner


8am breakfast

10-am-1pm writing time/121s

1pm lunch

3pm close

2014-02-13 19.26.29

Accommodation and Prices


Prices include the workshop, mentoring, food and accommodation for Friday and Saturday night. Please bring your own wine!

Double with ensuite bathroom: £295 pp

Single with ensuite: £275 pp

Single with a shared bathroom: £255 pp

A limited number of day retreaters are invited at £150 for Saturday and Sunday including lunch on both days and dinner on Saturday.

To book or for more information, please email erinnamettler@gmail.com or alice@alicecuninghame.co.uk or book through Eventbrite